A red squirrel pokes its head out from behind a tree

Eurasian red squirrels are one of the UK's native mammals © VOJTa Herout / Shutterstock

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Squirrels in the UK: what they are up to, when and why

The UK is home to two squirrel species: the Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). 

The species you are more likely to see scampering through the trees or ransacking your bird feeders will depend on your location, though grey squirrels, which are not native to the UK, are now far more common in most areas.

Discover what these seemingly adorable tree-dwelling rodents get up to - what they eat, where they sleep and why they keep digging holes in your garden. 

What do squirrels eat?

Squirrels are omnivores. Most of the time they rely on plants, but their diet varies through the year depending on what is available each season. 

Both species eat tree seeds. Grey squirrels predominantly seek out high-calorie seeds such as acorns, beech nuts, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts. Red squirrels eat these seeds too, but they will also feast on smaller seeds from conifer cones. 

Squirrels will also dine on flowers, fungi, shoots and some plant bulbs, as well as sometimes turning to insects, such as caterpillars, bird eggs and even nestlings. 

They are opportunistic feeders. So, if you provide food for birds in your garden, you may also see these supplies diminished by squirrels taking advantage of an easy meal. 

A grey squirrel eats from a bird feeder silled with peanuts

Squirrels are opportunists and will happily feast on food you leave out in your garden, even if it wasn't intended for them © Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why do squirrels bury food?

Winter is tough for squirrels, with fresh food in short supply. To get themselves through the lean times, they hoard food, storing it underground in shallow holes. Red squirrels are also known to cache fungi in tree crevices. They will return to these supplies throughout the cold months. 

Squirrels don't use a single central larder. Instead, they hide their foraged food across a wide area. It's thought this reduces the impact of cache pilferage on the forager's winter supplies. This is where another squirrel takes food it didn't collect itself. While they will inevitably still lose some food in this way, they might also reciprocate by taking food that other squirrels have collected. 

A grey squirrel stands on its hind legs

Squirrels dig small holes in the ground that they will usually bury food in. These stores help them survive winter food shortages. © Shredda via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Grey squirrels have been known to use deceptive tactics to protect their supplies. When other squirrels are around, they will dig and cover some cache sites without actually burying any food in them. It's thought that, while they rely on their noses to find food when they need it, squirrels also use visual cues. Deceptive caching may serve as a distraction, preventing carefully foraged food from being stolen immediately by other opportunistic squirrels. 

When winter's fresh food shortages arrive, squirrels will locate and use up most of their stored supplies, but they won't find them all again. This inadvertently benefits the next generation of squirrels, as these buried seeds stand a chance of growing into new trees that produce new sources of food. 

Where do squirrels live?

The Wildlife Trusts estimate there to be around 140,000 red squirrels and a whopping 2.5 million grey squirrels living in the UK. 

Eurasian red squirrels

Red squirrel numbers have dramatically declined since the introduction of grey squirrels and are now considered endangered in the UK. Their strongholds are in Scotland, home to an estimated 75% of the remaining red squirrel population, but they once spread across much of the UK. 

A red squirrel sits in a tree

Red squirrel numbers have been in decline partly because of the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America © Richard Wiseman via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

They have disappeared from all but a few places in England, Ireland and Wales. In England they can be seen on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island, as well as Formby, and in pine forests in Northumberland and the Lake District. In Wales they are mostly restricted to Anglesey in the northwest. 

Red squirrels can be found in coniferous and broadleaf woodland. However, the loss and fragmentation of these habitats puts them at risk of further decline. 

Additionally, expanding conifer plantations in the UK, usually made up of non-native tree species, sound like they might be beneficial to coniferous forest-dwelling red squirrels. But in reality, these areas provide a lack of prey diversity for animals such as pine martens, which turn to hunting red squirrels to survive instead. 

Efforts are underway in the UK to try and save this squirrel species. Monitoring changes in the population is an important part of this and conservationists have seen some success with moving some red squirrels from stable populations into specially chosen areas that the species used to be found in. 

Outside of the UK, red squirrels are common across continental Europe and Asia. In some places they can be found thriving in urban areas, especially where grey squirrels haven't been introduced. 

A red squirrel eating a nut

Conservationists have been monitoring red squirrels in the UK and looking for ways to prevent this endangered species from being lost © Frank Vassen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Grey squirrels

You are much more likely to come across grey squirrels - also known as eastern gray squirrels - in England, Wales and much of Northern Ireland. 

Grey squirrels are quite at home in woodlands but are also a common sight in many urban gardens and parks. This species is from North America and was introduced to the UK, possibly as early as the 1870s. 

They directly compete with red squirrels. Grey squirrels take a larger share of available food, steal from red squirrels' food caches and have displaced the native squirrel population in the UK and parts of Europe. They can carry disease such as the squirrelpox virus, which greys are resistant to but can infect and kill red squirrels.

In the UK, grey squirrels also have few predators that could control their expanding population, though pine martens, foxes and birds of prey such as goshawks may hunt them.

A grey squirrel sits on a tree branch in an urban park

Grey squirrels thrive in both the countryside and urban areas. This individual was photographed in St James's Park in central London. © Beko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Where do squirrels nest?

Grey and red squirrels are arboreal, meaning that they live primarily in trees and build their nests there too. 

A squirrel nest is known as a drey. These are messy-looking balls of sticks, about the size of a football, and are lined with moss, leaves, grass, shredded bark and other soft material the squirrel can find. You'll spot them at least six metres off the ground, built into tree forks. They're often more visible in winter when the trees lose their leaves. 

It isn't possible to tell whether a drey belongs to a grey or red squirrel until you spot which species is its resident, though where you are in the UK may provide some clues. 

Dreys can be confused with the nests of large birds like magpies. If you look closely, you can sometimes tell the difference between these as squirrels will weave their nests with twigs that still have their leaves attached, whereas birds tend to use leafless sticks. 

Squirrels may also take advantage of natural tree hollows or large nest boxes for dens. The squirrel will tend to line these with the same kinds of soft materials that they would use in a drey. 

A squirrel on a tree branch next to a drey

Squirrel nests, known as dreys, look like messy balls of sticks © RobDun / Shutterstock

Do squirrels hibernate?

Squirrels don't hibernate. Both red and grey squirrels are active during the day, all year round. 

Animals that hibernate, such as hedgehogs and dormice, have to build up fat reserves to survive through winter. Squirrels don't do this and instead rely on a steady supply of food from their underground stores. 

While they still need to get out and about for food, you may see squirrels less often in winter than when it is warmer. When the temperature drops, squirrels may spend several days in their drey, keeping themselves warm and dry. 

Apart from during the breeding season, squirrels tend to nest alone. However, in winter, multiple squirrels may share a nest to help them keep warm. 

A red squirrel carrying a mouthful of moss

Squirrels fill their nests with soft materials that help them stay warm © Peter Trimming via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

When do squirrels have babies?

Red and grey squirrels start breeding when they are 10-12 months old. They usually have two litters of two to four offspring each year. The first litter is born in early spring and the second in early summer. 

Baby squirrels, known as kits or kittens, are born blind and hairless. They start to eat solid food at about eight weeks but may rely on their mother for up to 10 weeks. 

In the breeding season, males are attracted to females when they are in heat (oestrus). Multiple males may chase the female until a dominant male is established. Both sexes are not monogamous, and will mate with multiple partners.  

Why do squirrels shake their tails?

Being almost equal in length to their body, it's impossible to not notice a squirrel's large, fluffy tail. They're even named for it. The word 'squirrel', which has Greek origins, means 'shade tail'. 

A squirrel's tail helps them with balance but can also be used for communication. You may have occasionally spotted a squirrel giving its tail a few sharp flicks. This could be a signal of aggression or agitation directed at other squirrels, sometimes accompanied by vocalisations. Or it could show a predator that's it's been spotted and that they've lost the element of surprise.

A study of North American fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), which are close relatives of our grey squirrels, suggests that larger tail flags could also indicate frustration. In yellow ground squirrels (Spermophilus fulvus), which are more distantly related, tail twitches may signal excitement or anxiety. 

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